April: FoldIt, Not Fortnite - The Challenge of Ethical Gaming

In this essay I want to propose a challenge to game developers — a challenge to consider how the design mechanics of games that currently stimulate vast numbers of players (Fortnite) can be applied to games that, through the crowdsourcing of player problem-solving skills, can find utility in helping to solve ethical and technical challenges across our real world. In other words, I am suggesting that the age of morally ambiguous games for adolescents steeped in ultra-violence might instead move towards a more ethically evolved range of alternatives, with game designers instead challenging themselves and gamers everywhere to rewire themselves to enjoy games that actively contribute to the betterment of society.

One of the most stimulating activities I have had the pleasure of engaging in during the past couple of years was participation in my first hackathon. It was the ‘Enabled by Design-athon’ run by Remarkable with a focus on creating inclusive solutions in the disability and accessibility space. The process of being involved was a revelation in many ways — the joy of working in collaboration with others who were eager to innovate and think in experimental ways; to contribute to a competition of ideas that could create real, practical solutions that we would have a hand in bringing to life. The camaraderie and stimulation and entertainment that were generated by the hackathon towards goals of valuable, ethical creation felt to me like the foundational mechanics for a beautiful kind of game.

I have recently been thinking a lot about games and, broadly, on how we entertain ourselves, with particular focus on the sort of phenomenological experiences I have sought from these mediums. As a child, I developed, as we all do, a preference for certain types of stories that took shape and revealed themselves through a range of mediums. In early primary school, it was Choose Your Own Adventure stories and audio cassettes of classical music dubbed from the local library. A couple of years on, I was enjoying the interaction of those elements in early Atari video games. In my teenage years, I was soaking up the novels of Hermann Hesse and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, learning about different variations on what it is to be human, soon followed by the hyper-sensory pleasures of animated television series like Neon Genesis where futuristic robot battles blended notions of love and survival. I relished the comedy of Monty Python and the tragicomedy of M*A*S*H. When forging new friendships through high school, I started taking longer and longer walks with mates through local and remote cities and bushland and mountain territory where we would talk about the usual things — constructing shared language together regarding life and girls and art. And then, onto the first iterations of online computer games that us teaming up over dial-up modem connections in heavily pixelated versions of the sort of first-person shooter games we now see represented in Fortnite and Overwatch and Call of Duty and the like. It does not take a great leap of psychological faith to see that the central motif I was seeking out time and time again were modelled simulations of life and death, often against the backdrop of the imminent or current destruction of society. Not a unique aesthetic by any stretch — if every song is a love song, then every story, whether told through words or paint or pixels, is a ghost story of survival in the face of the void.

As I think about the politics of our current moment, I am driven to be increasingly reflective on the ideologies at the base of the entertainments I have been stimulated by and that I today see providing the same for hundreds of millions of young people. For the purposes of this essay, I am specifically curious as to whether the design mechanics that make games like Fortnite (ghost story of survival in the face of the void) so prevalent can apply to the development of top tier games that can utilise crowdsourced, hackathon models of gameplay in order to help solve global and local hurdles. In other words, let us test the video game format in its ability to confront the very real ghost story that is the future of our humanity by explicitly focusing on the social, environmental and medical challenges that daily determine our life and death.

You do not have to look very far into the history of video games to see models for this already — take a well-known example, Sim City and its offshoot The Sims. Sim City, literally a simulated city in which players take control of the economic processes that will either give rise to a thriving city or one that will fall into destruction and riot, became a staple of school classrooms across Australia during the 90s. Players got a window seat view into what town planning was, why economic decisions were so crucial to the functioning of an urban microcosm, the value of law and order, and other responsibilities of citizenship. Later with The Sims a more intimate game design focused on the lives of characters in a city, but with similar problems to be solved — how often to feed the people and the animals, how often to shower and sleep, when to go to work for money and what sort of lifestyle options this would afford you. I have yet to use the self-conscious label ‘edutainment’ here, but that is what these games are — educational, simulation games designed in such a way to be genuinely entertaining.

Take another example, one that gets more to the heart of the mechanics of games I am recommending for consideration. The Center for Game Sciencehas, in collaboration with numerous researchers and science and technology departments, created a game called FoldIt, which is a crowdsourcing video game that allows players to engage in the act of protein folding. Players, who can be complete amateurs without any experience in biology or related subjects, help to fold proteins and experiment with possible protein structures. The intention is to utilise the puzzle solving intuitions of humans in a way that can compare and contrast with what machine learning in computers can achieve. The game creates competitive environments in which people play to fold the most efficient protein structures which can benefit researchers by providing new protein solutions to consider. These solutions can then be taught to algorithms within computer machine learning functions to achieve further medical research success. Now, imagine if all the Fortnite players in the world were to find FoldIt such an engaging game experience that they sought to contribute their time and energy towards its outcomes. Consider if top-tier games by the most prominent game studios were developed to focus on environmental challenges, on homelessness, on mental health solutions, on revolutionary economic policies. Just as how these areas of focus are articulated as part of hackathon events, what if a genre of game was to develop crowdsourced, hackathon mechanics within its design to engage players and contribute to social, humanist, global progress.

There are already fascinating dialogues emerging between game writers and developers around games that use other game mechanics other than confrontational violence to stimulate engagement. There have been storytelling games that explore the grief of parents on the passing of their child; on the calm satisfaction of tending to a garden of flowers; teaching a new language through role-playing exploration; and indeed the number of evolving simulation games out there focused on farming, transport and citizenship are showing that there are already a broad host of design strategies employed by forward-thinking games to establish narrative driven solutions. The challenge now is to consider the incorporation of massive-multiplayer online crowd-sourced hackathon dimensions.

Let me be clear that I am not seeking censorship over games that I now, in my mid-thirties, feel distasteful towards, particularly in light of recent terrorist and urban shooting tragedies. I understand the appeal of survival-focused, team-based life and death battles within video games in the same way I understand the appeal of action movies, of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 overture, of boxing, of pulp fiction battle robots. Freud and sex and death and evolutionary psychology provide a public language to articulate all of this. What I am instead suggesting, is that if game developers see ultra-violent games as a preferable choice for development in our current historical moment, they are experiencing a severe lack of imaginative, and moral, potential. I have played virtual reality experiences that make Fortnite feel like Frogger — the level of immersion that some of these new technologies inspire is phenomenal. But, if these hardware developments can only provide us with ever more realistic ways to kill each other, it will not only be severely disappointing from a creative standpoint but it will also be a sign of the sort of entertainment that we value over other ways we could be engaging and collaborating as humans.

At the end of a busy workday, when we sit down after dinner with an hour or two before it is time to go to bed, playing a game that asks you to fold proteins in varying arrangements might not seem like a natural preference. Testing your reflexes on Mario might seem preferable. And yet, if there is a game developer out there who can create a game that utilises the mechanics of successful, enjoyable, relaxing game experiences, and can inspire hundreds of millions of players to contribute their problem solving skills towards finding a way to cheaply remove carbon from the atmosphere and contribute to better environmental futures — what a fantastic achievement. And, in a political period in which gaming culture is being increasingly called into question as to the moral and ethical realities of how some online communities are impacting on the world, what could be a better outcome than to turn gaming towards collaborative, communal, crowdsourced engagement in order to solve local and global societal needs, to apply technical and philosophical solutions to real-world challenges, and to see concrete, measurable outcomes as a result. That is how I would like to occasionally spend an hour or two between dinner and bed of an evening.

A final thought to consider with a view to future potentials — games are not long just going to be for our waking hours. There are already zero-player games that do not require active input, so how long is it going to be until technologies allow us to provide low-level sleep input from our minds into a game controller? Already we can control games with electroencephalogram (EEG) input, so surely mainstream sleep games are not far behind. In which case, the stories that we choose to participate in during our dreams are going to be up to us to choose. Ignoring for a moment the genuine physiological toll that playing games during sleep would inevitably have, there might nonetheless be a generation of gamers one day soon who choose to plug in and play across eight hours of what we used to know as sleep. Will they be playing FoldIt, or Fortnite?

Let me know if you are working on similar projects already, or if you would like to connect more on exploring these potentials further.